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Eighty years of Asian studies at St. Olaf

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St. Olaf is celebrating a trio of anniversaries this year: 80 years since the college offered its first course about Asia, 50 years since Asian Studies became an academic program, and 20 years since it earned academic department status.

St. Olaf offered its first course about Asia in 1938. Called History of the Far East, the class focused on what was then seen as an exotic region on the other side of the world. Today, of course, that region is no longer foreign, and St. Olaf’s Department of Asian Studies illuminates Asia’s wealth of cultural, historical, religious, and political diversity for 21st-century students who live in an interconnected, global society of which the continent plays an increasingly integral role.

St. Olaf has enjoyed a rich and lengthy history with Asia, from as early as the turn of the 20th century, when students did missionary work in China. Agnes Kittelsby of the Class of 1900 taught history, German, English, and Latin at St. Olaf before leaving for China in 1914 to organize a school for children of American missionaries. Clemens Granskou, Class of 1917 and St. Olaf president from 1943 to 1963, was a teacher and missionary in China in the 1920s. Over the years, numerous faculty members and administrators have had family and missionary ties with Asia or pursued academic interests in the region.

Courses with an Asian focus remained in St. Olaf’s History Department until 1964, when the Religion Department offered its first Asia-related course. The college formally recognized Asian studies as an academic program in 1968. Thirty years later, the program was reorganized again, becoming its own academic department. Since then, the Asian Studies Department has offered an interdisciplinary program of study that draws on faculty expertise across the liberal arts. It now has six full-time equivalent faculty members and, in response to student demand, began offering majors in Japanese and Chinese language in 2017. The Class of 2018 included 17 Asian studies majors, seven Chinese majors, and nine Japanese majors. A total of 29 students earned concentrations in either Asian studies, China studies, or Japan studies.

“Our approach — with dedicated faculty and a broad curriculum — is often seen as the gold standard for Asian studies at liberal arts colleges.” — Luce Professor of Asian Visual Culture Karil Kucera

St. Olaf also is known for receiving competitive grants in support of Asian studies, most recently a $400,000 four-year grant from the Luce Foundation to explore connections between the environment and Asia that supported faculty and curriculum development as well as student research opportunities.

St. Olaf’s unique Asian Conversations program, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, also bolsters St. Olaf’s reputation as a leading college for the study of Asia. The program, which is a series of three linked courses taken by a single cohort of students, was revamped in 2008 to include an embedded January Interim spent studying in Shanghai and Tokyo, as well as a requirement to study Chinese or Japanese language. Asian Con has seen enrollment increases each year, with a cohort of 43 students registered for the program in 2018–19.

Off-campus study in Asia remains a core principle of the department, with students first traveling to the region in 1966 when the Term in Thailand was offered as the college’s first international study option in Asia, followed by the Term in China in 1975. The college has since moved away from full-semester study abroad programs in Asia, focusing more on programs with intensive language study or opportunities for international, faculty-mentored student research in conjunction with St. Olaf’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.

For students, and particularly those interested in more than just an American perspective, a major in Asian studies represents what the liberal arts is all about, says Barbara Reed, religion professor and former chair of the Asian Studies Department.

“Asian studies is complementary to study in so many other fields: public health, environmental studies, the arts, history, and so on,” she says. “Asian studies is about studying a very dynamic region of the world from many different perspectives to help students make sense of the interconnectedness of cultures and economies in the context of globalization. That study equips them to be effective global citizens.”

In honor of 80 years of Asia at St. Olaf, we talked with alumni about how the choice to major in Asian studies has impacted their lives.

Nick Wallace ’02

Dean of Liberal Arts and STEM
Dakota County Technical College
Rosemount, Minnesota

Nick Wallace ’02 stands in front of the entrance to Dakota County Technical College. Photo courtesy of Tom Roster.

Nick Wallace’s understanding of the value of education is reflected not only in his professional life but also in the degrees he holds: a B.A. in Asian studies, political science, and religion from St. Olaf and three advanced degrees from the University of Minnesota, including a J.D., a master’s of public policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and a Ph.D. in organizational leadership, policy, and development.

“I’m interested in how law and policy can be used together for social justice, particularly for educational equity,” Wallace says.

Wallace studied Chinese at St. Olaf and was among the cohort of students who participated in Asian Conversations in its first year. Studying in Japan and China during Interim of his sophomore year changed his outlook on the world, he says. “It was one of the most formative experiences I had at St. Olaf.” He notes that while in China, he became a better listener while attempting to understand an unfamiliar language, a skill he still uses today. “It’s important to listen to others before trying to express myself,” he says. “The cultural, religious, historical, and language learning I did in Asian studies illuminated the conversation that happens between cultures. It helped me understand how China developed in relation to the rest of the world and what that means for us today.”

As dean of Liberal Arts and STEM at Dakota County Technical College, Wallace listens to the needs of his students as they navigate college, many as the first in their families to pursue a higher degree. “Our community and technical colleges are vital access points to higher education for large segments of society,” he says.

Wallace has been preparing for his role as dean throughout his career in academia, including leadership stints in law school admissions at the University of Minnesota, Rutgers University, and Syracuse University.

“My work in educational equity goes back to the lessons I learned in China of understanding issues that are broader than my own experience,” Wallace says. “Through my legal research and my advocacy work, I’m able to look at access in education not as a singular thing but as a collection of complex issues needing practical solutions.”

Signe Knutson ’11

Program Coordinator
International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) USA
New York City

Signe Knutson ’11 stands in the streets of Chinatown, New York City. Photo courtesy of Michael Sofronski.

Signe Knutson’s fascination with China began as a first-year student intent on preparing for a career in international business.

“Everyone told me to take Chinese as a career move,” she says. “What surprised me was that, as I was studying the language, I also learned about Chinese culture, history, economy, and politics. The experience changed my perspective on China.”

Six semesters of language courses and two study abroad experiences — the Asian Conversations program in Tokyo and Beijing and the study of language and culture at East China Normal University in Shanghai — turned Knutson’s eye from international business to nonprofit work related to Asia.

Fresh out of St. Olaf with majors in Asian studies and political science and a concentration in Chinese studies, Knutson returned to China. There, she used connections with IES Abroad in Beijing that she had developed during Asian Con to become a resident advisor with the organization.

“I wore many hats as a resource for American college students studying abroad: cultural guide, interpreter, mentor, counselor, and mediator,” Knutson says, including a stint as the point person for St. Olaf’s Asian Conversations group at the time. Knutson then taught English to middle and high school students in Hunan Province for a year before moving to New York City to work for InterExchange, where she supported international young professionals in the United States who were participating in internships and training programs.

Knutson currently is a program coordinator for International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) USA, where she oversees logistics for a scholarship program called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth. The program, which is funded by the U.S. State Department, offers language-immersive academic and homestay experiences in Korea, India, Morocco, and Taiwan for high school students. Knutson also has renewed her interest in international business as an M.B.A. degree candidate at Baruch College.

“I was drawn to St. Olaf because of how globally minded the college is and how it creates thoughtful and intentional travelers,” Knutson says. “Asian studies helped me develop a humble and curious global outlook — to be respectful, engaged, observant, and nonjudgmental — that has equipped me well for my work.”

Raina Young ’93

M.D., Family Medicine
HealthPartners Clinic
Eagan, Minnesota

Raina Young ’93 photographed at HeathPartners Clinic by Tom Roster.

When Raina Young was still in high school, she received a recruitment postcard from St. Olaf showing an Asian studies faculty member holding a Chinese character flash card, and that was all it took to get her to sign up for a first-year Chinese language class.

“I thought it would be cool to be able to read that postcard,” recalls Young, who says she just fell into Asian studies at St. Olaf. “I loved studying Chinese and really bonded with the friends in my classes. From there, I decided to study abroad on the Term in China in Shanghai and after that, a major in Asian studies just made sense.”

Young was in China not long after the Tiananmen Square incident, when the country was very different than it is now, she says. “It was much more of a developing nation as opposed to a technological hub,” she says, recalling the prevalence of bicycles for transportation, water that needed to be boiled, and cockroaches and rats in the dormitory. “We were two to a room, but the Chinese students were six to a room.” By far, the most impactful experience for Young in China was the death of a fellow Ole, Christin Mead ’94, who developed pneumonia and passed away in a Chinese hospital of acute respiratory distress syndrome. The two Chinese doctors who treated Mead traveled to the United States to attend her funeral.

“That made an impression on me — witnessing the lifechanging person-to-person relationships that can develop between caregivers and their patients,” says Young, who notes that Mead’s death pushed her toward medicine. “I was intrigued by the whole idea of intercultural exchange through the practice of medicine.” She returned to St. Olaf with a renewed commitment to Asian studies complemented with pre-med courses, eventually taking additional science courses at Iowa State University. She graduated from the University of Iowa School of Medicine and now practices family medicine at the HealthPartners Clinic in Eagan, Minnesota.

“I have patients from all over the world,” Young says. “I believe my degree in Asian studies and having lived in China prepared me well to be a thoughtful, empathetic caregiver and to be curious and open-minded about my patients’ cultural practices and beliefs.”

Steven Braun ’11

Data Analytics/Visualization Specialist
Northeastern University Libraries Digital Scholarship Group
Boston, Massachusetts

Steven Braun ’11 in the Boston Public Garden. Photo courtesy of Rick Friedman.

Steven Braun entered St. Olaf with interests in doing research in the natural sciences and following the pre-med track. While he did indeed earn a degree in chemistry, his experience in the Asian Studies Department impacted him the most, particularly interactions with its faculty members. He met Professor Emerita of Asian Studies Phyllis Larson as a first-year student taking third-level Japanese, and she changed the trajectory of his life, he says.

“She transformed me into an Asian studies major,” Braun says. “She — and other faculty members — pushed me to think critically about questions of representation and how different perspectives, whether social, cultural, historical, or political, can frame an issue.”

After graduating from St. Olaf, Braun was still convinced that he wanted to pursue a life of research as a biophysicist. He spent a year in Kyoto, Japan, as a Fulbright Fellow, conducting computational biophysics research before returning to earn an M.S. degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale University.

But while in Kyoto, he’d reflected on his St. Olaf experiences and changed his mind about his career, eventually turning to the world of information design and visualization. As a data analytics and visualization specialist at Northeastern University, Braun helps faculty, staff, and students use graphics and visual modes of representation to communicate data more broadly. For example, a recent project looked at the differences in U.S. and Japanese high school history textbook depictions of the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

“Design is a scholarly process, and it can be useful in visually communicating the data behind research,” Braun says. “I’m able to integrate the very technical things I learned in the sciences with the critical thinking I learned in Asian studies.”

Braun is discovering that his background and expertise in science, data visualization, and Japanese are proving useful to others.

“I’m connecting with scholars around the country — particularly in Japanese or East Asian studies — who are interested in using digital tools to advance their research,” he says. “It really brings into focus both my technical skill set and the academic experiences I had at St. Olaf in a concrete, tangible way.”